The increase in tuition fees to £9000 per year and the removal of the cap, allowing Universities to recruit as many students as they want and can, has had dramatic consequences for Higher Education (HE) in the UK, limiting education to those who can pay for it. Developments at Nottingham’s universities are no exception in this respect. Only Labour’s policy of abolishing tuition fees, as outlined in the party’s 2017 Manifesto, can reverse this trend.
The impact on students has been devastating. £9000 of annual fees plus general living costs over three years imply that many leave university with debts of over £50,000 (Which?University, 16 April 2018). Of course, loans must be repaid only once students earn a certain amount, but nonetheless a debt of £50,000 is prohibitive especially for students from less privileged backgrounds. Inevitably, education under Conservative governments has become again something, which is only available to those who can pay for it. Recent Conservative plans to reduce fees, but without necessarily compensating universities for lost income, have been widely criticised for the inevitable detrimental impact on higher education provision.
Moreover, different perceptions of debt may influence ‘career choices’ before and after entry to university. The report by Vigurs, Jones and Harris (2016) highlights that post-1992 graduands, often from less privileged backgrounds, are more likely to be on vocational courses, experience financial difficulties and being in extensive paid employment whilst studying than their Russel Group counterparts. In short the new fee regime does not only deter certain groups of students from entering university, it also consolidates class distinctions, exacerbating inequality, during the undergraduate process and beyond.
Universities, whose main income now comes from tuition fees rather than a government grant, have completely changed their strategy. To be successful in the competition for students, investment has shifted into ambitious infrastructure projects. ‘Since 2012, Britain’s universities have embarked on building sprees in anticipation of increasing their undergraduate and graduate capacity, and improving their appeal to prospective students’ (The Guardian, 22 September 2016). In 2013-14, UK universities spent £2.5bn in infrastructure projects. My own employer the University of Nottingham, for example, has recently built a brand-new sports village for £40 million, part of an infrastructure budget of £580 million between 2014 and 2020.
These investments come at a price. There has been an increasing emphasis on reducing staff costs. This is partly achieved through a rise in casual employment at universities. In 2016 the Guardian reported that ‘according to the latest official figures, 45% of all Nottingham staff involved in teaching and researching count as casual labour’ (The Guardian, 16 November 2016). Equally important, universities have put downward pressure on wages of the least well-paid staff members. Nottingham Trent University, for example, does not pay the living wage to its cleaners. Finally, the attempts at cutting back staff’s pensions as well as the below inflation salary increases over several years have been part of universities’ strategy to reduce the wage bill.
Unsurprisingly, universities have become islands of privilege, with world-class facilities for those who can pay, in seas of poverty. ‘In Nottingham North, 39% of children are in poverty and in Nottingham South the figure is 33.5%. Overall the city of Nottingham has been ranked as the local authority with the 15th highest level of poverty in the country, at 38.23%’ (Nottingham Post, 24 January 2018). Access to Nottingham foodbanks has been on the rise.
Labour offers a clear alternative here. By promising to abolish tuition fees, HE will again be open for everyone. ‘Labour believes education should be free, and we will restore this principle. No one should be put off educating themselves for lack of money or through fear of debt’ (The Labour Party, Manifesto).
Andreas Bieler, Education for Broxtowe